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Aggies On The Plains! (No, No—Not Those…)

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And so the 2011 season begins right where the 2010 edition left off: Auburn is undefeated and facing a team from out west, in a place where it gets really hot. The difference is, of course, that we are facing Utah State instead of Oregon and in the “brunch” game on ESPN2 instead of the BCS National Title Game in prime time. And Auburn is hotter in September than Arizona is in January.

The Tigers begin the season with probably more question marks all over the field than any other team in college football. Attrition was humongous. Concerns manifest themselves in every direction.

The other side of the coin, though, is that we will have a lot of fun over the next few months learning about the new players and how they fit together (or do not) to form a new Auburn team.

Who can make a play when everyone in the stadium is going bonkers and the game is on the line? When the team gets knocked down and fortunes are turning dark, who gets up first and comes out swinging? And what mad schemes have Malzahn and Roof come up with for this season?

An undefeated season and a trip back to the BCS Title Game probably isn’t in the cards, but there’s still so much to look forward to.

First, a word on the opposition:

The Utah State Aggies.

Conference: WAC

2010 Record: 4-8. They beat BYU, Idaho State, New Mexico State and San Jose State. They lost to Oklahoma in a close game to start the year; OU played a very sloppy game and still won. They were crushed by San Diego State, Boise State and Hawaii.

Starters returning: 9 on offense, 5 on defense

Utah State was not a good football team last year. They nearly shocked the world by hanging with Oklahoma in the season opener, but things quickly fell apart afterward. The Aggies were particularly bad on defense last season, allowing 428 yards and 33 points per game. Against good teams the defense was worse.

On offense Utah State is a “kitchen sink team.” They throw everything they can think of at an opponent. And since they lost their starting quarterback and will not reveal his replacement until game time, Auburn coaches are unsure of what they might see out of this team on offense.

Players to watch: Two in particular. Linebacker Bobby Wagner is the preseason WAC Player of the Year and sits on the Nagurski watch list. He was seventh in the nation in tackles last season. Kerwynn Williams serves as the Aggies’ WR/KR/PR, and will present an excellent challenge for Auburn’s new coverage teams.

Game Thoughts:

– Back to basics. Auburn will do what needs to be done in this game: Get ahead early, play a lot of the younger guys, and try not to show too much to future opponents. Expect a basic approach all game long, with a relatively small number of plays run from of a variety of different formations.

– Hurry up. Look for lots of speed and tempo. With Cam having moved on to Carolina and the quarterback now a mere mortal again, Gus surely will be pulling the offense back in the direction he favors—running lots of plays in a big hurry. The 2009 offense ran plays pretty quickly (at a clip of 70 per game), but they were too new at the approach to really burn up the field the way Gus’s Tulsa teams used to do. (Tulsa ran 80 plays a game in 2007 and 84 plays a game in 2008.) Last year, he slowed things down even more, as it became apparent that Cam and the rest of the offense could score consistently if they just moved in a deliberate and careful manner and didn’t suffer self-inflicted mistakes such as penalties and turnovers. As a result, Auburn was 61st in the nation (!!) in plays-per-game in 2010, running only 67 per game. That’s hard to imagine, with Gus Malzahn running the offense. And it will surely change this year. And that could be a LOT of fun to watch.

-Who’s that guy? If there was ever a game when you needed a program or roster at your side, this is it.

Remember what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy says. With so many new faces and an opponent who had all off-season to prepare, Auburn may start slowly. DON’T PANIC. It shouldn’t take long for the offense to turn the jets on and pull away. And of course we know what a Chizik/Roof defense tends to do after halftime.

-Auburn and the points? The spread is Auburn by 22. We don’t gamble on college football because it is far too important, but that gives you an idea of what people who are paying attention think of this game. It seems like a reasonable number; low enough to account for all the new, young players, but high enough to account for the fact that it’s Auburn hosting Utah Freaking State.

The Auburn 2011 Worry Poll: (Listed in order of most worried about to not worried at all about.)

1. Run Defense. This has always been Ted Roof’s specialty. He’s going to have to cobble something together this year from what’s left post-Fairley, mainly consisting of a bunch of young guys. Emphasis on have to. If you can’t stop the run, you’re dead. Period.

2. Offensive line play. We were truly spoiled last year. Now most of those guys are gone and an almost entirely new crowd will be protecting Hairy Trotter and opening holes for Dyer and co. How quickly they come together and how effectively they can battle the D-lines of the SEC (and Clemson) will determine results for at least the early part of the season.

3. Wide receivers. The two stalwarts, Darvin and T-Zac, are gone. Kodi Burns likewise. Now all eyes turn to came-on-big-late Emory Blake, the Lutzie, and a squadron of heretofore lesser lights. Can Quindarius Carr get it together—finally? Can DeAngelo Benton step up—finally? What about the other guys? Will Trovon Reed be the x-factor? How about Quan Bray, whom coaches recently indicated they don’t fully trust on the field (at least as a receiver) just yet? Lots of question marks here.

4. Quarterback play. They’ve settled on Barrett Trotter. Moseley and Frazier will stand next to Gus and flip the mystifying color-and-number cards. (Heck—Oregon’s wacky pictogram posters with images of ESPN anchors and cartoon characters make more sense to us than those flip-charts Gus’s guys are constantly rifling through.) We know (or at least we pretty well assume) that Trotter knows the offense as well as any QB Malzahn has ever coached. He’s certainly had enough time to learn it. Can he make the throws? Can he make the right decisions, before the snap and after? Can his knees hold up? Lots to keep an eye on here.

5. Halftime show. Hey, the band is going to play a medley that includes “We are the Champions.” Now that is cool. And enough to make those of us watching on TV wish we were in the stadium. (We’d also like to check out the new photos that have been going up on the stadium, inside and out, replacing the murals that were installed in 1998.)

6. Auburn showing up in stupid new uniforms. Just because Georgia is doing it—putting the uggh in UGA with their new Nike suits—doesn’t mean anyone else in the conference should, and certainly not us. And, by the way—thanks, Dawgs, for embarrassing the entire conference with those outfits. The SEC team is supposed to be the mature, respectable representative in those intersectional games. But noooo—here you go, dressing like you’re in the WAC, and making Boise State look like they’re the school with 100-plus years of staid tradition. Ugh!

Questions from Around the SEC:

1) LSU-Oregon: Are LSU fans happy or depressed that Jordan Jefferson is suspended? No team wants their starting QB to be arrested, but we think many LSU fans have been secretly hoping for former UGA / JUCO quarterback Zack Mettenberger to get a shot. Also losing a linebacker and a receiver doesn’t help, of course. But LSU has the right coach for this situation: Les can handle the crazy and distracting stories (because he already is crazy and distracting) and get his team ready to play. The biggest thing LSU needs to focus on is the same as it was for Auburn: get penetration with its defensive line and disrupt the Oregon running game before it gets going. If they can do that, the Ducks are going to feel all kinds of déjà vu and think they’re back in the desert as their offense gets stuffed.

2) Georgia-Boise State: The other big opener is UGA vs. Boise State in the “Ugly New Uniform Bowl.” (See comments above.) Can we state again how upset we are that these two games are on TV at the same time? The networks paid a gazillion dollars for SEC football, only to put the best two games of the first week head to head on different channels. If one of these games could be played on Sunday or Monday night it would draw huge ratings. As far as matchups, we think Kellen Moore > Aaron Murray. Boise State is always well-prepared and well-coached. If the Bulldogs are going to win, they will have to find some physical mismatches on the lines and take advantage of them. Can Isaiah Crowell get a first down when it’s third and two and the game is on the line? Can the Dawgs move the ball if Crowell gets the slightest bit dinged up?

3) South Carolina at East Carolina: We had some hope for an upset here, until discovering that ECU was last in the nation in defense last year. Yikes. Even Steven Garcia can handle that.

4) BYU at Ole Miss: Why are these two teams are playing. Who scheduled this? It just seems weird. As weird as… Houston Nutt.

5) Important programming note: If both Georgia and LSU lose this week, the national media will go straight into “the SEC is finally down this year” mode next week. Bet the farm on that. They look at that big “5” on the cover of the SEC Media Guide and it galls them and they’re just waiting to pounce.

Wishbone Pre-Season Power Rankings:

The Elite

1. Alabama


The Really Good

3. South Carolina

4. Arkansas (Kniiiiiiiile!!! Come back!!!)

5. Mississippi State

The Good

6. Auburn

7. Georgia

8. Florida

The Mediocre-to-Bad

9. Tennessee

10. Ole Miss

11. Kentucky

12. Vanderbilt (“Wait—you mean that soon we get to be the FOURTEENTH best team in the conference?!”)

Related: The Wishbone’s 2011 Auburn Football Preview

Van Allen Plexico managed to attend Auburn (and score student football tickets) for some portion of every year between 1986 and 1996. He realizes that’s probably not something one should brag about, but hey. He teaches college near St Louis (because ten years as a student was somehow just not enough time to spend at school) and writes and edits for a variety of publishers. Find links to his various projects at www.plexico.net.

John Ringer graduated from Auburn in 1991 (which may be the greatest time ever to be an Auburn student – SEC titles in 1987, 88 and 89 and the 1989 Iron Bowl). His family has had season tickets every year since well before he was born and he grew up wandering around Jordan-Hare on game days. He currently lives in Richmond, Virginia where he spends way too much time reading about college football on the internet and teaching his children to love Auburn football.

Previous Wishbone columns can be found here.

Order Season of Our Dreams — every “Wishbone” column from the 2010 preseason through the fabled Date in the Desert, plus a stadium full of extras.

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